[Holy Fools + 2 Stories, Marianne Ackerman, Guernica Editions, 2014]
Holy Fools + 2 Stories is Marianne Ackerman’s first book of short fiction. Ackerman, who is the founder and publisher of The Rover an online magazine of art and culture at www.roverarts.com, is a well-known Montreal based author and playwright. Her novel Jump which was set during the Québec referendum of 1995, was a bestseller.
“Holy Fools,” the title novella, is also set during a time of crisis in Montreal but focuses on the personal crisis of its main character, Francis Peter Wright. In the opening pages, Peter, who is deftly described as being “a tall man, six-foot-ten-and-a-half” and “On the cusp of thirty, painfully thin, his best features buried under a four-season coat of timidity,” plans to commit suicide in his modest apartment on Ste-Dominique Street. Before he can proceed, his life seems to take a turn for the better when police storm his apartment and arrest him for the murder of a woman he never met.
This is the kind of upside down world the reader enters in which the absurd reigns. The amazing plot keeps the reader reading, and at times laughing. Perhaps the title of this entertaining novella might have been “In a Maze” as this is how its anti-hero experiences the complications of life since he was a child bullied in the playground. Peter appears devoid of any common sense and life for him is one wrong turn after another as he tries to find the Exit sign to this incomprehensible maze. He suffers from amnesia whenever there is a challenge to his innocence, and ends up in prison for several years. Once freed, he soon misses the daily rhythm of prison life. Though Peter’s most remunerative work was cleaning cages in a lab, he eventually finds himself the owner of a millionaire’s mansion in Westmount, through the intervention of the larger than life character named Tolstoy whom he had met in prison. In Tolstoy, a toilet paper magnate who writes biographies of great men but is a far cry from the literary genius who is his namesake, Ackerman lampoons celebrities such as Conrad Black or Martha Stewart, who were incarcerated for a time but made good use of their talents while behind bars.
The weirdest character befuddled Peter encounters in prison is Bruno Bisque, a three hundred pound weightlifter and clairvoyant who fails to help Peter prove his innocence.
There is no exit for Francis Peter Wright in the end.
The other two stories in this collection are not perhaps as successful as “Holy Fools” in their overall structure and craft but continue to develop Ackerman’s vision of the dark side of life and the failure of some to overcome it.
In “No One Writes to the Professor,” the author offers a critique of the pretensions and obstacles in the world of academia through the main character, Ramόn, a bitter ex- student from Peru, is convinced he could have written a brilliant thesis in economics, but failed to do so in part due to his paranoia that his ideas would be stolen.
A more disturbing story is the closing one entitled “Albert Fine.” Ackerman might have been better to make it longer as it is more a crazy quilt of short mismatched scenes. In the early sixties, Len is the owner of the Walmsley farm and is overwhelmed by the work, his wife now expecting their fifth child. On the recommendation of his brother-in-law who owns a lumber mill, Len meets Albert, who comes alive in all his repulsiveness through Ackerman’s powerful description:
“He had the face of an old man, ruddy, full of lines, but his hair was black and thick, slicked back and held down by a tweed cap. He was missing a few teeth and smelled like he slept in his clothes. A stained shirt tucked inside his pants, collar buttoned up tight, waiting for a tie. His overall appearance was neat, almost dapper. His handshake was firm. Len couldn’t help thinking of where that hand might have been, and how often it was washed.”
Len’s mistake, despite his immediate instinctive recoil, was to hire this man who would eventually destroy his life and his family.
In Holy Fools + 2 Stories, Marianne Ackerman succeeds in creating original plots and unworldly characters. She has added another valuable production to her already long list of literary achievements.